Proposals for an Advanced British Standard – what can we learn?
18 October 2023
Charles Tracy, IOP Senior Adviser, Learning and Skills, reflects on proposals for major reform of 16-19 qualifications.
On Wednesday last week, the Prime Minister announced proposals for major reform of 16-19 qualifications built around an Advanced British Standard. The announcement was followed up with a DfE publication. There will be a formal consultation in due course and the Institute of Physics (IOP) will respond to that, with input from our community. However, in the meantime, it is interesting to reflect on some of the proposals.
Above all, we welcome the intention to begin a review of post-16 education and the ambition to bring parity of esteem to technical and academic routes and to allow for greater breadth of study. Such parity is essential to help draw people into rewarding and productive technical occupations; with 53% of physics-related jobs not requiring a degree, there are huge opportunities for young people with technical qualifications to become a part of a century of innovation. A common framework will encourage uptake and reward them for their studies – so long as there is flexibility for different approaches in the different routes.
It is right to allow plenty of time for consultation with a wide group of stakeholders. In order to improve the buy-in from those stakeholders (to both the review process and the eventual reforms), we support Sir Adrian Smith’s suggestion (The Times, behind paywall) for cross-party consensus. Working on that basis will provide longevity for the reforms and reduce unnecessary instability in the system.
As well as allowing for more breadth, if the changes led to a smaller number of defined routes, there would be additional educational advantages. In our current system, there are endless subject combinations making it impossible to teach any given subject in a way that draws on other subjects at the same level. This is particularly noticeable for physics: teachers cannot rely on maths beyond GCSE (thereby closing off explanations based on calculus). By contrast, predefined subject combinations (at least in the major subject choices) will allow students to learn in a coherent and interlinked way – making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Imagine the satisfaction and deep learning that would result from studying simple harmonic motion, in an interdisciplinary way, across three different subjects – physics, computing and maths.
Above all, new curricula should be actively inclusive, and demonstrate the contributions and achievements of all cultures, groups and communities – many of which are currently invisible or undervalued. It is particularly important in physics to help break down barriers to participation by some groups and improve access and diversity within the subject. Currently, as highlighted in the IOP’s Limit Less campaign, too many young people are made to feel that physics is not for them and tackling this exclusion needs action now – not just over a 10-year review.
As the document notes, there is a challenge in ensuring that there are enough teachers to cover an increase in teaching hours. The exact teaching requirements will need careful modelling to plan for expanding the teaching workforce. To that end, the incentive payments for shortage subjects is welcome: we know that such payments help with retention in early career. We have been advocating a three-stranded approach to increasing the number of physics teachers: the 3Rs – recruitment, retention and retraining. As well as specific initiatives, there are, sadly, deep systemic issues that need addressing to improve both retention and the attractiveness of teaching as a profession.
We accept that a curriculum needs to be rich in knowledge. However, we caution against large volumes of small, unconnected facts. We advocate planning curricula in a way that develops deep and lasting knowledge of a small set of big ideas along with enduring capability in the practices and ways of thinking across the disciplines. The Subject Professional Bodies have been thinking about what such a set of ideas and capabilities would be and can provide support on developing new curricula.
Finally, the development process should consider the impacts of a new qualification on all UK nations – particularly given the title of this qualification. Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to retain A-levels and there has been a recent independent review of qualifications and assessments in Scotland.
Charles Tracy is IOP Senior Adviser, Learning and Skills